by Libby Scheier
Everybody at the centre had their problems and they
weren`t keen on getting an earful
of someone else`s
She is the red-haired runner beat up by the cops. She runs along the Toronto lakeshore at four in the black August morning. When the cops stop her, she shouts at them and takes off. They give chase in their car, catch her, and pound her with their fists until they are tired.
She was always off the beaten track, but now she`s going over the edge. Realizing that she hates everyone in the world, she gets pregnant and has a son whom she loves without respite. She is split like the Grand Canyon. Her child is perfect and she has no bad feelings about him. Adults are suspect. They oppress and damage her.
THE PARKDALE Parent and Child Drop-In Centre was dominated by a clique of vegetarian Buddhist pacifists on welfare who were always angry at each other.
"Talk about holier-than-thou," Felicia was saying to Arla. "Susan is so arrogant, I mean she really excels in arrogance. Buddhists are supposed to be humble and modest. But all you hear from her is how she`s off dairy products, and then she asks you, are you still eating all that cheese and eggs? And then she tells you all the ways she`s learned to prepare soy. I mean, who asked? Now she`s got a new name. I can`t even pronounce it.
The spiritual leader of the temple gave her a name, which means she`s reached some level of spiritual wisdom. Really he just wants her to keep living at the temple because he needs the rent. And she is always proselytizing people, you know. Real Buddhists don`t proselytize."
As an admitted eater of meat and non-practitioner of yoga, Arla was often the person the feuding Buddhists came to in order to complain about each other. Felicia spoke to her frequently. Arla was neutral territory. She was so far off the path of spiritual wisdom she was out of competition.
Arla liked Felicia a lot, despite Felicia`s wide mood swings. Felicia wanted badly to be saintly and would give it a stab for a few days, then lapse into deep depression, hating herself for her failures and being angry at all the people she had helped who did not appreciate her and were just using her. Felicia was at her best during the transition period when she was emerging from depression and before taking another bash at sainthood. Arla found her easy to talk to at these times, warm, good-humoured.
Felicia had finished venting her anger about Susan, and had lapsed into a monologue about the philosopher Gurdjieff. Her dark brown eyes were steady above her olive cheekbones, her thick and wavy black hair wild around her face. She concluded her speech with a pointed look at Arla. "Those who don`t realize this won`t be saved when the catastrophe comes." Arla. returned the gaze, her blue eyes steady, her long brown hair flat against her head. She was about to make a crack about not proselytizing, when the red-haired runner strode up to them.
Arla had met the red-haired runner at the centre the previous week. The runner was wearing a long-sleeved white blouse, blue vest, ankle-length cotton-print dress with small blue and white flowers, and white socks in white running shoes. She was short and apparently slim, but it was hard to tell what exactly might be under the flowing garments that covered her almost entirely. Arla didn`t know yet that the runner had red hair because it was all pinned up and tucked under a white cotton hat with a brim in front. The runner`s hands and face looked very naked; Arla wondered if she carried gloves and, perhaps, a fan.
At first, the runner didn`t talk to anyone. She walked around quietly, holding her infant son. He had a large, bald head and stared at his mother`s pale face with big, unblinking brown eyes. The runner didn`t put him on the bare wooden floor to play nor did she sit down or stand still. She just kept circling the large church basement slowly, looking at things, but not meeting anyone`s eyes. She paused to let her son stare at the bright red and blue toys in the play comer; when he reached for one, she moved on, circling past the second-hand flowered sofa, orange fading to brown, the bright green easy chair with white stuffing leaking from its cushion, and the damaged straight-back chairs strewn here and there. No one went up to her to say hello. Everybody at the centre had their
problems and they weren`t keen on getting an earful of someone else`s.
After a while, the runner stopped her circling to listen to some women talking about their welfare cheques. She kept her eyes averted, but nodded when someone complained about a caseworker.
"You must be a new member of the welfare mothers`contingent here," Arta said in her bright and loud voice.
The runner`s face reddened. "I guess I am," she said almost inaudibly.
"Well, another welfare mother is always welcome around here," Arta continued loud, and laughed. "How old is your ... boy? girl ?"
"Eight months old. It`s a he."
"What`s his name?"
Arla recognized the name of one of the kings in Beowulf but decided not to remark, since the woman`s voice trembled when she uttered her son`s name. Touchy, better be careful, thought Arla. That`s what happens when you name your son Hrothgar, imagine the fun he`ll have later in school.
"What do you do besides take care of your son?" Arla asked, adding quickly, "Of course, that`s a full-time job by itself. Who has time for anything else?"
"I run," said the woman, and paused a minute. "But since I`ve had my son I haven`t had time." She turned away from Arla, walked across the room, sat down on the flowered sofa, and began nursing the baby.
"Done it again," Arla said to herself out loud.
Arla saw the runner in the local supermarket the next day. The two women were at the fruit counter pressing pears with their fingertips to find the ripe ones. The runner had no hat on and her beautiful head of long, full, dark red hair swept down her back and around her shoulders. Arla didn`t recognize her at first. The runner`s manner was completely different. She seemed relaxed in the supermarket, a place of ephemeral relationships where people could meet each other`s eyes and speak, without thinking about the consequences.
"Is there any fruit on special today?" Arla asked her.
The woman looked up pleasantly at the taller, darker woman addressing her. Arla saw that she had light green eyes with small dark centres and was quite striking. "The Valencia oranges are cheap today," she said, "but my son doesn`t like them. He only likes pears and bananas."
Arla looked at the baby in the shopping cart and recognized Hrothgar. "Hey, don`t you go to the drop-in centre?" she asked. The runner started.
"Oh, sometimes, I go to the centre sometimes," she said, and dropped her glance to the floor. Then she looked up shyly at Arla, met her eyes for a moment in recognition, then turned back to the pears. "Can`t find any ripe ones," she said, her hands suddenly darting from pear to pear.
"No, they`ll have to stand outside and ripen a while, I guess, said Arla, drawn back to the pears by the runner`s movements. "But some of the bananas are ripe, if you need some ripe fruit for Hrothgar today."
The runner looked up gratefully. "Yes, Hrothgar hasn`t had any ripe fruit today. I think he`s constipated now."
"Where do you live?" Arla asked.
"Oh ... not too far from here, she said.
"I`m just a few blocks away myself. Did you ever think of doing some exchange babysitting?"
The runner picked up her son protectively. "Oh, I don`t know. I haven`t had anyone else look after Hrothgar. I`m not sure, she said. She put him back in the shopping cart, took her white hat out of her pocket, put it on her head and started tucking her thick red hair into it.
"Maybe the four of us could visit together first and see how we feel about it," Arla said. "I don`t get out much. Do you?"
"No ... not much."
"Also I paint and now I can only paint at night, what with Sam up and about in the daytime. I`d like to do some painting in the morning. I work better in the morning. And the light`s good," Arla said.
"Well ... I`ll think it over," the runner said.
"You like to go running, don`t you? You could run while I watch Hrothgar."
"Oh ... oh ... okay ... I would like to do some running, I guess. It`s been a long time since I did any running. I won the Toronto marathon two years ago." She said the last sentence quickly, rushing it out and turning red.
"No kidding," said Arla, "that`s great."
The runner turned to leave, then turned back abruptly.
"What sort of painting do you do?" she asked Arla.
"Oh, I`m into new realism, I guess. I keep starting a series of selfportraits but I`m having a lot of trouble with them. Sometimes I don`t think I`ll be able to do the series as long as my parents are alive," said Arla. The runner took a few steps backward and rubbed her forehead with her fingertips.
"That`s a terrible thing to say, but I can`t help feeling that way. It`s like that film, that Woody Allen film, Interiors. Did you see it?" Arla didn`t stop to wait for the runner`s answer. "Great film -it`s really his best.
Too bad it got dumped on by reviewers. It was his first straight film, you know, and they couldn`t stand him making a film that wasn`t funny, because he never had before. Now, they`re more used to it. So anyway, the woman in the film, Interiors, the one who can`t get it together at all, well, when her mother commits suicide, she feels released, and she starts writing like crazy. But her two other sisters, they were very active before the mother`s death, one`s an actress, and the other`s a writer, and they get all blocked by the mother`s death. Of course, I don`t feel like watching any of Allen`s stuff these days. I mean not since he shacked up with his stepdaughter. Shit. I mean, it`s the late Woody Allen, as far as I`m concerned. But it`s really interesting -running," she said, and wrote her number down and gave it back to Arta.
And here the runner was again, arriving at a good time, too, Arta thought. She was tired of sparring with Felicia about enlightenment.
"Hi!" the runner said brightly, and both Arta and Felicia started. She was completely out of character. "How are you doing?" she continued in the same breezy tone.
Felicia and Arta exchanged wary glances. Felicia said, "Good, I feel good today. How about you?"
"Oh, really good," the runner said.
Arta noticed that the runner was not holding her son. She had never seen her without the baby in her arms, except for that time in the supermarket when he was next to her in the shopping cart. The runner had not called Arta about that babysitting exchange.
"Where`s Hrothgar?" Arta asked. Felicia looked at Arta about to say, Who?, but Arta knitted her brows purposefully and Felicia kept quiet.
The runner watched this exchange, took a deep breath, and said, "Hrothgar? Oh, Hrothgar`s right over there." She repeated her son`s name slowly and loudly, looking seriously from Arta to Felicia and back to Arta. Suddenly she smiled broadly, in the bright and breezy way she had come over to say hi. "He`s playing over there, with a little boy."
They turned and saw the eight-month-old crawling around some chairs. An older child was playing peek-a-boo with the infant.
"That`s Sam," Arta said, "that`s my son."
"Oh, no kidding, that`s great, the runner swept along. "What a nice little boy. How old is he?"
"Five," said Arta, smiling at her son. "He is a nice kid, isn`t he? Don`t know who he takes after, he`s so easy-going and sociable. It`s certainly not me or my ex-husband," Arta laughed.
The runner frowned slightly, moved back a step, then laughed, too. Three short laughs and a sudden silence. She tried to push out a few more laughs but coughed instead. "Maybe he takes after a grandparent," she said, trying to be part of Arta`s joke, but speaking a bit too seriously.
Arta had expected to be reassured she was a friendly, pleasant person. "His grandparents on both sides are a drag, too," she said with an edge in her voice, "but my grandfather you know, Sam`s great-grandfather - they say he was easy to get along with."
That`s great, the runner said, still making an effort to have a conversation like anyone else.
Felicia had been standing by quietly, observing the exchange between Arta and the runner. She announced, "I`m not feeling well."
"Why, what`s wrong?" asked Arta.
"Too much bad karma around here.
"Make yourself some camomile tea. That`ll calm you down," said Arta. "It`s too early in the day to be thinking about the imperfection of the universe."
"I`ll make rosehip. Better to be fortified than calm," said Felicia.
Arta and the runner sat down on the sofa. The runner took another short, deep breath. "So let`s get together soon and talk about this babysitting exchange," she said.
"Great. How about this afternoon? Are you busy?" asked Arta.
"No," said the runner. "Why don`t you come by my place? I`ve just made up a special tea of seven herbs, my own recipe. I`ll make you some."
"Sure," said Arta.
THE WINDOWS of the runner`s basement apartment were plastered with bronze plaques from races she had won. The beige walls were bare, except for one wall in the front room, which was entirely covered by a huge oil painting composed of 24 squares. Inside each square was an open mouth. Each set of lips was painted a slightly different shade of purple.
"That`s quite a painting," Arta said to the runner.
"My husband did it. I mean my ex-husband."
"Yeah, I`ve got one of those, too," Arta laughed.
The runner winced.
"Eight years with the guy, can you believe it?" said Arta. "After I had my son I couldn`t stand it any more. One baby at a time, you know what I mean? In fact that`s what I said to him when I asked him to leave and not come back. One baby at a time..."
"Do you like the painting?" the runner interrupted her. Arla had hated the painting instantly. "It`s really unusual," she said. "It`s...," she hesitated, thinking about what to say.
"I don`t like it either," the runner said abruptly and fell silent. She took a deep breath, but it didn`t work, and she lapsed into the manner more familiar to Arla, turning her eyes to the floor.
"Tea, let`s have some tea, Arla said, unconsciously mirnicking the runner`s bright tone of voice from the morning.
"Don`t make fun of me," the runner said quietly.
"Oh. I didn`t mean to. I ... well, I was just trying to be cheerful," Arla said. She decided to change the subject. "Hrothgar`s an interesting name. Where did you get it?" she asked. The runner`s shoulders tensed and Arla realized it was exactly the wrong thing to say, just as she`d suspected earlier. Why had she forgotten?
"It`s an old English name. My great-grandfather`s brother was named Hrothgar. He became a famous doctor and nobody made fun of his name then," she said.
"I think it`s a great name. I`d just never heard it before and wondered where you got it," said Arla, deciding not to say anything aboaut King Hrothgar in Beowulf.
"Well, that`s where I got it," the runner said stiffly.
A burst of howling from the front room cut short the conversation. The two women went into the room. Hrothgar had crawled up to Sam and picked up one of his toy cars. Sam grabbed it back and Hrothgar fell over, banging his head on the floor. He lay there now, screaming, while Sam held on to his toys.
"Oh, Sam, what did you do? That`s not nice." Arla`s voice was harsh and Sam started to cry.
"Oh, hey," the runner said softly to Sam. "Don`t cry. Hrothgar`s okay. Look, he stopped crying." She picked up Hrothgar and brought him over to Sam. Sam glared at the infant and pushed away the hand that was again reaching for his toys. The runner stroked Sam`s hair, saying softly, "It`s nice to be gentle, like this." She took Sam`s hand and stroked her son on the head with it, then let go of his hand. Sam`s curiosity had been aroused and he put his hand on the infant`s face carefully, feeling the nose and mouth, and then smiled at the runner.
Arla watched quietly. That was the right way to handle that scene. She ought to have done it that way. This woman was a little crackers all right, but she was good with kids.
Hrothgar had cheered up and was crawling back to the kitchen. Sam was playing with his toys again. "How about next week?" Arla asked. "You take my son on Tuesday, I`ll take yours on Wednesday."
"Okay," said the runner, smiling at Sam and then looking up dubiously at Arla.
This is a slightly abridged excerpt from "The Runner," a novella by Libby Scheier that will be included in Saints and Runners, a collection of short fiction to be published by Mercury Press this fall.